Stereotypes Are Only Human

The human need to form stereotypes is one potential barrier to collaboration and reconciliation in politics and society. It turns out that we begin to put people in categories from infancy.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

JACKI LYDEN, host:

Now we continue with the NPR series Crossing the Divide.

Unidentified Man: I think that humans are a very cooperative species, but we have never lost, of course, the tendency to fight for the things that interest us.

LYDEN: The series has looked at how people find ways to collaborate and compromise in everything from politics to their daily lives. Today we examine one potential barrier to crossing the divide: stereotypes.

Researchers say that our brains seem hardwired to create social categories that influence how we see others. NPR's Nell Boyce reports.

NELL BOYCE: Ask a random person on the street what comes to mind when they hear the word conservative and you'll hear something like this:

Mr. MARK TROPP(ph): First thing I see is dark suits, blue shirts and ties.

BOYCE: That's Mark Tropp who lives in Washington DC. He's also got a mental image of liberals.

Mr. TROPP: Hippies marching along the Mall here.

BOYCE: Sometimes stereotypes are played for laughs. Here's Stephen Colbert reacting to the Democrats' victory in Congress.

Mr. STEPHEN COLBERT (Talk Show Host, Comedian): Tomorrow you're all going to wake up in a brave new world, a world where the Constitution gets trampled by an army of terrorist clones created in a stem cell research lab run by homosexual doctors who sterilize their instruments over burning American flags.

BOYCE: Now political parties have real policy differences. But words like Democrat and Republican are linked in people's minds to a whole slew of images and associations. Basically, stereotypes.

Mr. TONY GREENWALD (Student, University of Washington, Seattle): Stereotypes of Democrats and Republicans, and liberals and conservatives are now quite well established. My impression is that they have been growing in strength in recent years.

BOYCE: Tony Greenwald studies stereotypes and prejudice at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Mr. GREENWALD: To the extent that the stereotype is operating, it does indeed prevent us from seeing the individuality of a person.

BOYCE: And Greenwald says if you can't see the individual, you'll be making assumptions that may or may not be true.

Still, stereotyping helps us make sense of a confusing social world. That's why researchers say that the urge to sort people into groups seems hardwired in our brains. We start putting people in categories very early, even in infancy, starting with visual cues like sex, age and race.

We go on to do the same thing for other groups. We have stereotypes of cheerleaders, drug dealers, librarians... And no matter what social group we call our own, we tend to think it's the best.

Professor MARGO MONTEITH (Psychology, Purdue University): You know, I've done it entirely randomly, created two groups - you're in Group A, you're in Group B. People automatically develop preferences to favor the groups to which they belong.

BOYCE: Margo Monteith is a psychologist at Purdue University who studies social groups.

Prof. MONTEITH: It's a very natural thing for us to do, and self-serving at a motivational level that often operates below conscious awareness.

BOYCE: Now, even if we aren't aware of them, stereotypes affect how we behave with others. Susan Fiske researches prejudice and stereotyping at Princeton University. She says if you secretly expect someone to be very warm and open, you'll act in a way that encourages that response. If you expect them to be closed off, your behavior will elicit that response too.

Professor SUSAN FISKE (Psychology, Princeton University): Sad to say, once you've categorized people, you see them selectively in line with the category that you have for them. Everything conspires to confirm your expectations.

BOYCE: We do notice if someone doesn't quite fit our expected stereotypes.

Prof. FISKE: But a lot of times, people try to explain it away so they can keep the category. Because these categories are very useful for people as they go around through their daily lives, and people aren't too happy about changing their preconceived ideas.

BOYCE: That's why it's so hard for us to cross a divide created by stereotypes. Often we're just not all that motivated to do it. Fiske says it takes work to put our assumptions aside.

Prof. FISKE: It can be very taxing on people. And it also makes the interaction a little strange because - especially if one person is monitoring their behavior in interaction with the other person. You know, it's not as spontaneous an interaction and nobody likes it on either side.

BOYCE: That's why superficial calls for unity won't work, she says. People have to believe that they're really working towards a common goal and sometimes that goal can be hard to find.

Nell Boyce, NPR News.

Coming up on Science Out of the Box.

Unidentified Man: Orange you glad, orange nectar, mango tango, and fancy Nancy. And that's just one page.

LYDEN: How we invent the names for colors. Have you ever heard of the color pagrue(ph)?

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.